TERRY GROSS, host:
I eat a lot of fish, so it was like a slap in the face when I saw that The New Republic's cover story in its environmental issue last month was headlined "Aquacalypse Now: The End of Fish."
The author, Daniel Pauly, writes that the fishing industrial complex is depleting the ocean of many types of fish and hurting the world's largest ecosystem. He says this approach to fishing is just not sustainable, and, he warns, don't be misled by all the new kinds of fish that have become popular in the past few years. They're actually an example of the larger problem.
We invited him to explain. Pauly is a professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia and the principal investigator of its Sea Around Us Project.
Daniel Pauly, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now the way you describe it, the fishing fleets, as they deplete one kind of fish, they just move further out to where there's different fish.
Professor DANIEL PAULY (Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia): Yeah.
GROSS: And they just keep moving further and further out to more remote territories.
Prof. PAULY: Yeah. And deeper waters, also.
GROSS: Deeper waters. Okay. So - until more and more fish stock are depleted.
Prof. PAULY: Yup.
GROSS: And eventually, there's going to be no new waters to move to. And if we're not careful...
Prof. PAULY: Well, it's not eventually. That was reached at the end of the �80s and the �90s, when industrialized fleet had covered the developing world - the developing countries and moved to the Southern Hemisphere and all the way to Antarctica. This was, essentially, the stop, because they couldn't go further. And then they accelerated the descent into the abyss. Now we fish at one, two miles' depth, and that is the last frontier of fishing.
GROSS: As you describe it, the fishing industry is now hauling in fish that they didn't consider using before, fish that you describe as smaller and uglier, fish that were never before considered fit for human consumption, and they've renamed the fish to make them sound more appetizing than the original names made them sound.
Prof. PAULY: Yeah.
GROSS: Give us some examples of what you mean here.
Prof. PAULY: Well, I mentioned the orange roughy, which was originally called slimehead.
GROSS: Slimehead. Okay. That doesn't sound appetizing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. PAULY: Hake fish is a jawless thing that is eel-like. What is known as the Chilean sea bass was originally known as a Patagonian toothfish. In fact, it's not only the renaming that you have to do, but a processing has to be done because you would not buy the fish if you saw them. Many of them are so ugly that they don't look like fish. And so they are - the head is chopped off, for example. Monkfish, for example, it's a big mouth with a little body attached to it. And you see them in the market mainly as a little body, because otherwise, you would think it's a monstrous thing that you cannot eat.
GROSS: But I have to say the fish that you mentioned, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, monkfish, they're very tasty.
Prof. PAULY: Oh, no problem with that. In fact, the flesh of very old animal in the water is strangely - is firm and it's white, beautiful fillet. And it's richly fat. Yeah, this is good fish. The problem is that this fish are long-lived. If you take orange roughy, they reach up to 150 years. And they...
GROSS: Wow, really?
Prof. PAULY: ...yeah. The oldest has been aged that old. And they mature at 30 years.
GROSS: Wait, wait. I just want to make sure I understand you correctly. You mean, each fish lives 150 years?
Prof. PAULY: The one that survive can live up to 150 years. And they become mature, they become adult at 30 years, older than us, twice older than us. So you are eating something that is older than your grandmother when you're eating one.
GROSS: Wow. So, it's going to take a long time for them to replenish.
Prof. PAULY: That's right. In fact, orange roughy essentially cannot replenish because this is an - like an old-growth forest. You harvest it and then you have to move on because the replenishment takes too long for any operation. When the orange roughy craze begun in the '80s, lots of countries got into that, New Zealand is the biggest one. And essentially, they harvest sea mounts. You know, this is underwater mountains, and at the top of them are full of orange roughy. And you fish it out, and then you move on to the next sea mount. So this is essentially unsustainable, and if an area has been fished out, then that's it.
GROSS: Now, what about the fast-food industry? There's so many, like, fish sticks and fish nugget kind of products...
Prof. PAULY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...sold in the frozen food compartment of the supermarket and also in fast-food restaurants. What kind of fishes are being used for that?
Prof. PAULY: At present, the Alaska pollock is used in lots of the products that require white fish. It largely has replaced cod in such product. But Alaska pollock, as you may know, it's the biggest single species fisheries in the world, except for the Peruvian anchovy, of which more later. And Alaska pollock, the stock is declining now, rapidly. And there will be a problem with the large firms that produce this fish, to get white fish of - in sufficient amount or sufficient quality to maintain this consumption. Also, you must realize that only a few markets have this fish.
The U.S. imports 80 percent of the fish that is consumed in the U.S., so the European Union. In the European Union, the fish all - is all imported from elsewhere. An elsewhere is mainly Africa and the South Pacific and Antarctica. So, our local waters in Europe and in North America are not supplying the markets anymore.
GROSS: So, 80 percent of the fish we consume in the United States is imported?
Prof. PAULY: Yeah.
GROSS: That's a lot.
Prof. PAULY: Yeah, it is a lot, indeed. And that's why things that happen in other countries are very important in connection with fish.
GROSS: So what are some of the ecological changes in the oceans that are being caused by overfishing?
Prof. PAULY: Well, essentially, when you fish a big table fish, like a cod, that cod ate before smaller fish. Now, the smaller fish eat little buglike animals, zooplankton, which themselves eat algae, microscopic algae. So, you affect the whole chain, because when you remove the cod, the small fish - let's call them herring - proliferate and eat all the zooplankton, the little buglike things. Now, they are not there anymore to control the algae and the algae bloom and explode.
And you have, in many inshore areas, in many areas, explosions of algae, harmful algal blooms and changing the visibility and the turbidity of the water, which are due to change in the food web of the sea. And this change is induced by changing one element of that chain that cascades down.
GROSS: Now, you also mention that there's an overpopulation now of jellyfish in some areas. Why is that...
Prof. PAULY: That's�
GROSS: �happening, and what does that mean?
Prof. PAULY: That's one of the changes it's brought about, because essentially, the big fish - lots of the big fish that we have removed are specialized feeders on jellyfish. For example, the chum salmon in the Pacific is a specialized feeder on jellyfish. So, many species of turtles or marine turtles feed on jellyfish. As this animal are reduced and the abundance are reduced, jellyfish don't have enemies anymore. The - also, jellyfish feed on the smaller animals, which become more abundant because the big fish are not there to crop them.
So, the changes in the food web that are induced by fisheries cause a proliferation of jellyfish, and in some system - in some ecosystem, they come to dominate the food web. And jellyfish can eat the eggs and larvae of fish. So they prevent the establishment - the reestablishment of the fish.
GROSS: Wow. Are we going to be eating jellyfish anytime soon because there are so many of them?
Prof. PAULY: Well, that is not a joke. Actually, jellyfish are consumed in East Asia, but this is only certain species. But there, we can appreciate some of the stuff that is happening because actually in sushi restaurants, you can get jellyfish. In Vancouver, I can go to sushi restaurant and get jellyfish salad. And I suppose that now, with some of them becoming more abundant, there are jellyfish fisheries in the United States. In the Gulf of Mexico, there are jellyfish fisheries that are exporting to China, I guess. And this product will become also available in processed form, perhaps into the U.S. market. I guess that will happen.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how we got to this point. What is it about the way the fisheries catch fish now that have led to such a grand depletion of fish stock?
Prof. PAULY: Because we have in our minds that - fisheries as a romantic activities, the bearded fishers that go out and risk his life - and that's very true - to go out and - in storms and stuff. But this romantic vision of fisheries is not realistic. This is more a floating factory with underpaid workers who use technology that was developed to fight wars, high technology, that has deployed in a warlike fashion against fish. The technology we use now to locate fish and to catch them - especially to locate them - is technology that was developed to find submarines in the Cold War and in the hot wars, in World War II.
Sonars, underwater sounding device, now various forms of geopositioning, GPS, all of these things allow us to locate ourselves relative to the fish with high precision. And so, a boat nowadays is full - a fishing boat, a modern fishing boat is full of electronic to the extent that boggles the mind. It's like a spaceship, almost, like the Enterprise. And because it has so much electronic, it becomes very efficient. If you compare it with a boat 100 years ago that had a similar engine, it is 10 times more effective in catching because the searching time is reduced to almost nothing. So, the reality what we have is floating factories which go with military precision to the place where the fish are and remove them.
GROSS: And what do they remove them with? What do they fish with?
Prof. PAULY: One of the most devastating means of catching fish is with a trawl, a bottom trawl, that is a big pocket, a big bag that will drag behind the boat that has an opening in the biggest boat where you could put six jumbo jets besides each other. That's how big the bag is. And it's dragged at the bottom of the sea, and it takes everything that is in there, everything including the bottom animals that form reefs and so on. Everything is dragged. I've been on such vessel myself when I was a student of fisheries. And it is brought up to the - on deck. And then the fish that you want is kept, and the other ones are rejected. They're simply thrown overboard.
And I had been operating like this on a German vessel that was fishing cod of Canada in '73 when I was a student. And that's essentially a form of fishing that had nothing to do with what we think fishery are.
GROSS: So, you're saying that this kind of fishing is kind of like cleansing the ocean of fish. I mean...
Prof. PAULY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...a lot of fish are thrown back, but, like, everything alive that's in there is going to come up through the nets...
Prof. PAULY: Is going to be dead.
GROSS: ...in the area where that's being trawled and...
Prof. PAULY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...yeah. So, it's easy to see how it would be possible to deplete the sources, yeah.
Prof. PAULY: Entire areas are being transformed from, if you like, from forest to plowed field.
GROSS: Tomorrow, we'll talk with Daniel Pauly about possible solutions to the problems of overfishing, and we'll hear his recommendations of what fish to eat. Pauly is a professor at the fishery center of the University of British Columbia and the principal investigator of its Sea Around Us Project. He wrote the cover story of the New Republic's environmental issue last month. It was titled "Aquacalypse Now: The End of Fish."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.